The presidential primary is getting whiter by the day. No, not because Marco Rubio dropped out, but because all the Southern states are done with. That’s why you're not hearing nearly as much about issues of concern to communities of color, particularly African-Americans. Perhaps because of the nominating contest moving into "whiter" states, discussion of racial justice policy has largely gone by the wayside in our 2016 conversations.
Soledad O'Brien argued earlier this week that “an important national conversation about police brutality and discrimination has faded into the background” as we focus on Donald Trump’s angry white base. (Guilty as charged.) The lack of Democratic debates of late may have had something to do with this shift, but even the rhetoric about structural racism on their side of the aisle (if not the proposal of actual policies to end it) is virtually nil. The Democratic candidates, at least, stopped talking about Flint’s water contamination crisis shortly after Michigan’s primary. Issues like police brutality have been largely replaced by speeches about what the “working class” wants. Rarely are people of color centered in those conversations. Starting with next Tuesday’s primary in Wisconsin, a state that is 6 percent African-American, that should change.
Looking ahead, the primary calendar features a lot of states where either the electorate is overwhelmingly white, or there isn’t much of a hook to specific black concerns in the way there was in states like Michigan (home to Flint), Illinois (home to Chicago’s urban violence), and South Carolina (home to every “black” issue under the sun). You might see some talk about racial justice in the coming weeks in New York, home of too many prominent police brutality cases and a fight for a $15 minimum wage. But outside of Puerto Rico and perhaps California, we’re done with states and territories where candidates might be looking to kiss the asses of black and Latino voters first.
We’re dealing with a flawed model here, waiting for primaries in predominantly non-white states before we can talk about racism. A dearth of black folks isn’t a reason to ignore race; quite the opposite. In a presidential election poisoned by the overt bigotry we’ve seen explode at Trump rallies, both Clinton and Sanders should be using this stretch of primaries in more predominantly white states to expand their argument for policies that address structural racism, not sideline it. Though Clinton did hold a town hall on gun violence on Tuesday in Milwaukee, not far from where unarmed Dontre Hamilton was killed by a cop in 2014, she did so in a black church. Neither she nor Sanders, despite promises to do so, has made enough of a point to talk to predominantly white audiences about systemic racial inequalities. Political candidates of any stripe cannot underscore enough that the burden of fixing the problem of racism, after all, is on white shoulders. Race speeches in Harlem are cool, but perhaps Janesville, Wisconsin, should get one, too.
Janesville is where, at a Tuesday Trump rally, a white 15-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted and pepper-sprayed at close range during a confrontation. After the spray hit her eyes, you can hear on video a man yell, “You goddamn communist nigger-lover, get the hell out of here!” (That’s pretty much the Trump rallying cry, distilled from “Make America Great Again.”) On Wednesday, just over the Wisconsin border in Minneapolis, yet another county prosecutor declined to prosecute a police officer for shooting an unarmed black man -- in this case, 24-year-old Jamar Clark, who was killed in November. Then there’s the case of Dontre Hamilton, a schizophrenic 31-year-old shot 14 times by a Milwaukee cop from behind during a confrontation in a park two years ago. (That officer wasn’t charged, either.) All that is to say: There are even news events involving racial conflict that candidates can use to illuminate anti-racist rhetoric, if not policies.
Even a Republican U.S. congressman from Wisconsin, Representative James Sensenbrenner, tried to remind his colleagues that this election will be the first in more than 50 years without proper voting rights protections. "The 2016 primary season has been marred by hateful rhetoric and ugly politics," Sensenbrenner wrote in a New York Times op-ed. "Passing the Voting Rights Act of 2015 would be Congress’s most enlightened response." That act, which Sensenbrenner introduced, revives the standard for federal review of all state voting legislation that’s in the original 1965 Act, but modernizes and applies it across all 50 states. The Democrats should adopt that same 50-state strategy with all racial justice policy, and keep that at the forefront of their agenda. Even in places like Wisconsin. Especially there.